Faith, Fear, and the Illusion of Control

Fear. We’ve all felt it. We all know the experience of being afraid of something.

And especially over the last two years or so of the COVID pandemic and all the debates about the restrictions and guidelines and the vaccines and now the vaccine mandates or passports, people’s fears have surfaced in a variety of ways. It doesn’t help, I don’t think, that government and the media often seem to manipulate people’s fears to achieve political ends. As a result, there are people who are afraid of getting COVID and people who are afraid of getting one of the vaccines.

But there’s more than COVID that causes fear to rise up in us.

Some people are afraid because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to pay their rent and put food on the table.

Some people are afraid because they’ve just been told that they or someone they care about has cancer.

Some people are afraid of trusting someone again because they’ve only known unhealthy, broken relationships.

Some people are afraid because of climate change.

Some people are afraid because their preferred political party is not in power.

But why fear? Why do these things cause fear?

Here’s a wierd fact about me: sometimes when I get anxious, I clean up. I straighten up clutter, clean a counter, do dishes. It’s like I’m distracting myself from what I can’t control with what I can control. You see, I’m the kind of person who likes to feel as though I have at least something of a handle on things–at least things in my little neck of the woods. This means that a lot of the time–whether I am conscious of it or not–I want things to go a certain way. I usually prefer the routine and predictable. And so if something unexpected happens, especially something that threatens my safety or the safety of my family, I may very well get anxious. Fear rises up. All of a sudden, my life isn’t securely in my hands. I’ve lost control and I don’t like that very much.

I think that’s where a lot of our fear comes from–from losing whatever sense of control we thought we had. We like having control over our lives and our circumstances. But sometimes we lose the tight grip we so often try and maintain. Then we become disoriented. We find ourselves without solid footing. There’s nothing, we think, to keep us steady. There’s very little that’s worse than feeling like we’ve lost control. The very idea can easily terrify us.

If I get a cancer diagnosis, my health is out of my control. If I lose my job, my finances are out of my control. If my marriage breaks up, my family life is out of control.

And we want to be in control. Because we want to be safe.

But here’s the thing: control is an illusion.

Whatever sense of control I’ve had is just that: a sense of control, not actual control.

And because the world frequently feels like a dangerous place, we’ll do almost anything to give ourselves a sense of control.

In his book What’s Wrong With Religion? 9 Things No One Told You About Faith, Skye Jethani puts it this way: “To ease our fears, we all strive to control the people and circumstances around us.”

And of course the biggest fear is undoubtedly the fear of death. I think the last couple of years have demonstrated that unequivocally.

We want to control our lives so we can put off dealing with the reality of death as much as possible. Because it’s the reality of death–which none of us can in the end avoid–that leaves us feeling like we have no control. And that’s what really scares us.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews (2:14–15), the author says this about what it means that Jesus went to the cross: through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Did you catch that? One of the reasons Christ died on the cross was so that he could free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

People are slaves, Scripture says, to the fear of death.

That is perhaps one of the most profound verses in the Bible I think there is. I think that’s because I see evidence of this all around me. I think it describes human history and human nature. I think it explains much of what I see when I watch the news. And when I see people react in very different ways to what’s going on in the world and in their lives. Fear emerges in various ways: in anger, in political divisions, and, yes, in attempts at control, whether individually or collectively.

It also explains me, when I catch myself falling prey to my own fears, despite all of the theology I have in my head.

One of the most common refrains in Scripture is this: Don’t be afraid. Fear Not.

Deuteronomy 31:6 says: Be strong and courageous; don’t be terrified or afraid of them. For the Lord your God is the one who will go with you; he will not leave you or abandon you.

And when Deuteronomy says don’t be terrified or afraid of them, I think we can rightly substitute our own fears for them. Fear of sickness, fear of loss, fear of death. The same remains true of God: he will not leave you or abandon you.

In the gospels, when the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, Jesus says this: Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.

I don’t know about you, but I need to hear Jesus’ words. I need them to sink deeply into my heart. Ours is a perilous world, one that elicits our worst fears at times. Maybe now more than ever. We don’t always know how to handle life. We don’t always know what choices to make. We aren’t certain about a whole bunch of stuff. But of this we can be certain: if God is on our side, who can be against us?

Living as a person of faith in the face of very real fears is not an easy thing to do. It’s true that sometimes fears get the best of us. The waves that threaten to overwhelm us and capsize our lives seem more real than God. More real than the promises of Christ. Faith is having the actual goodness and greatness of God magnified in our eyes. Not that he becomes bigger, but that we come to see him more and more as he actually is. And he is the one who can calm the storms inside of us when the winds and waves rage outside of us.

Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says. I say amen. I say I believe; help my unbelief. And I say, finally, Come, Lord Jesus.

Don’t Stop at the Yard Sale!

This morning I was driving along the main road of our municipality to pick up something from Tim Horton’s. At several places along the side of the road, there were yard sales. People hoping to rid themselves of items they no longer want or need.

Recently I helped my twin sons clean their room. A number of things went to the curb for garbage day, including stuff we had once purchased and imbued with value. Things our sons haven’t used or needed in a long time.

And, dare I say, in my basement there are still–still!–several boxes that remain unpacked from moving here seven years ago. Yes, you heard me correctly. And how sad is that? Clearly, the stuff in those boxes is very important to us. I should rent one of those dumpsters that I sometimes see people use after a basement has been flooded and they need to toss away all the damaged items.

Even now, when my wife and I are thinking about what to get our kids for Christmas or for their birthdays, we take into consideration the space we have in our home and whether or not the gift will be of genuine value and worth spending money on. Or will it end up on the curb sooner than later? Caveat emptor, indeed.

Sometimes, of course, we keep stuff for sentimental reasons. We hold onto special items which remind us, for example, of our late parents. Things often hold our memories. They tell our history. We have three storage containers–one for each of our kids–that contain examples of school work, report cards, art, etc.

All in all, we definitely have a relationship with our stuff. Our things are one of the ways we signal to others who we are–or who we want people to think we are. This is true whether we’re speaking of the clothes we wear, the books on our shelves, or the trinkets and novelty items we collect and display.

This makes me think of this parable Jesus told:

“A rich man’s land was very productive. He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there. Then I’ll say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”‘ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared-whose will they be?’ “That’s how it is with the one who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Luke 12:16-21

The guy in this parable has upside down priorities. His vision was entirely earth-bound. He was spiritually myopic. Jesus effectively unveils how we can become very easily attached to and distracted by material possessions.

Think about it: how many of us have storage sheds, storage closets, or whole rooms dedicated to storing stuff we don’t really use?

But we might use it. You never know. Better to hang onto it. Just in case.

As I was driving by the various yard sales this morning, I pretty much knew that stopping to check them out was a bad idea for a couple of reasons. One, I don’t really need anything at any of these yard sales. Two, I probably wouldn’t find anything that I really want at these yard sales. But just in case I might, I remind myself of my first reason for not stopping.

Seeing these yard sales also made me realize a good reason for not having my own yard sale. Most items at most yard sales don’t get bought. I’m guessing. Which means that if it’s your yard sale, you have to bring everything you tried to sell but didn’t back into your house. That’s a lot of back and forth to try and get rid of some stuff. My curb is much closer and more convenient.

I have the sneaking suspicion that when it comes to stuff–my stuff, for instance–that two things are true. First, I would find it hard to part with a good portion of my stuff. What if I want it later? After all, I spent money on that! The truth is, when we hold onto our stuff, often our stuff holds onto us. Second, if I were to get rid of some stuff that I find it harder to part with, I really doubt I would miss it all that much. Ironic, isn’t it?

Nowadays I’m a little more circumspect when it comes to shopping. Do I really need this? Will it be well used and serve a valuable purpose in our home? Or will it instead be one more item that ends up neglected and taking up space? If I find it hard to get rid of some stuff because I feel guilty for having spent money on something I don’t really use, that should make me more cautious about buying new stuff.

Not only that, but I want to be more self-aware of my motivations. When I was younger, I would sometimes shop just to shop. You know how it is. You go to Wal-Mart (or when I was growing up Zellers or K-Mart) or whereever, not because you have specific things you need to buy. You’re window shopping. Just looking around. I’m more aware than I used to be that the impulse to spend and buy is often rooted in a longing for meaning, for identity, for happiness, for peace. Because we all know the initial excitement of getting something new. There’s that little buzz we feel. The new thing we’ve bought gives us pleasure and distracts us from the deeper feelings of pain and loss. But of course that fades. And many people, when this happens, go shopping again.

Did I mention that I very nearly hate going to Wal-Mart these days?

Like Jesus says through his parable, when we are focused on our material possessions we are at risk of putting ourselves in spiritual peril. But when we are instead rich toward God, even the things we do have and keep no longer hold onto us. So, yes, enjoy some of your stuff for what it is. Don’t count on it to be what it can never be. And get rid of whatever things have become more of a burden than a blessing in your life. If it keeps you from trusting in and loving God, it’s best not to have it at all. Because, as Jesus says elsewhere, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Carrying One Another’s Burdens

Imagine a man walking a dusty road carrying a very heavy load. He can barely manage it. Without help, he knows he might not make it. He prays for God to help him. Someone comes along and offers to help. The man refuses the help, and says, “The Lord will help me with my load.” After he’s walked a little longer, another person offers similar help. “That’s ok,” the man says, “The Lord will help me with my load.” Eventually the man collapses on the side of the road under the weight of his burden. Discouraged, he cries out to God, “Lord, why did you not help me with my heavy load?” The Lord replies, “I offered you help with your load twice, but you refused.”

In Galatians 6:2 the apostle Paul says: Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

The first and obvious thing to point out is that we all have burdens. Some of us have them right now. Some are emotional. Some are physical. Some are financial. Some are relational. Scripture assumes at some point we will all find ourselves carrying burdens—that we’ll find ourselves in situations and dealing with struggles that weigh us down.

Put simply: living the Christian life does not mean having a trouble-free life.

Not only that: But all of them are spiritual. Let’s be honest, depression can affect us spiritually. A chronic illness can affect us spiritually. The breaking up of a close relationship can affect us spiritually. Losing a job can affect us spiritually. Finding it hard to make ends meet can affect us spiritually.

Our burdens affect how we relate to God. They can make it harder to pray and trust God. Sometimes the burdens of life make us want to stay home from church. Or make it impossible to go. And because God is interested in our entire lives, he wants us to learn to deal with our burdens in the right way.

At the very least, we need to be honest about the fact that we all have burdens.

The second thing is this: Carrying one another’s burdens means knowing one another’s burdens. It means knowing one another. Does anyone else know when you feel overwhelmed by guilt? Are you ever aware if someone you know is feeling weighed down by sorrow?

Bearing one another’s burdens—including letting someone into our lives to help us bear ours—is really hard because it means becoming that much more honest with ourselves and vulnerable before others. Are we strong enough to admit weakness? Are we ready to admit that to someone else?

The church is many things. Among them, it is also a family. We’re called brothers and sisters. We are called to care for one another. And that doesn’t always happen in ways that fit into our comfort zones.

The question is: are we prepared to step into someone else’s life when it’s going to be messy and uncomfortable? Sometimes I wonder if we’re more interested in having neat and tidy lives than in actually being in real and honest relationships with other people in the church.

I know it’s a risk, and it’s not one we should take with everyone around us. But each of us needs to have at least one or two other believers in our life that we can open up around. I honestly believe in those moments of vulnerability that God meets us. We all need someone we can be open with about our deepest cares and struggles.

The third thing is this: Bearing one another’s burdens is how we love like Jesus. Just like Jesus entered our situation, our lives, in order to bear the burden of our sin and our brokenness to bring forgiveness and healing, so we are called to enter into one another’s lives to offer love and the presence of Jesus.

Jesus touched people. Literally and otherwise. He drew near to the hurting. He spoke words of comfort and healing. He didn’t avoid the awkward moment but stepped into it.Consider Psalm 34:18: The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit. Psalm 147:3 says He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.

Notice how both verses include the brokenhearted. We often talk about physical healing. We talk about people having sins forgiven. But what about those who are suffering from heartbreak because their kids won’t speak to them? Or are still living out of past trauma? Or are hanging on to grief? The Lord promises to be near to them also.

One way—one important, fundamental way—he does that is through his people. Not because there are those among us who haven’t had struggles, but sometimes precisely because we’ve had similar struggles.

In 2 Corinthians 1:3—4 it says: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

We can’t solve the problems of others. We can’t eliminate their burdens. And we can’t take on all of their burdens ourselves. Paul also says that each person will have to carry their own load. Our burdens are still ours. But we can share the load.

Ultimately carrying one another’s burdens means carrying one another to Jesus. It means letting someone cry on your shoulder. It means being willing to listen without jumping in with easy answers. It means praying for and with one another. It means sharing how God brought you through your own tough time.

At the end of The Return of the King Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee are on the slopes of Mount Doom. Their journey has been long and perilous. Frodo’s mission to bring the ring to Mount Doom and destroy it is near the end. But he’s spent. He can barely bring himself to go on. And Sam, his ever-faithful friend, says to him, “Come, Mr. Frodo!” he cried. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.” What a wonderful picture of Paul’s words in Galatians!

Are you willing to open up to others about your burdens? Are you willing to have others open up to you? Do you trust Jesus to meet you in the midst of your burdens? And do you believe that he can meet you through your brothers and sisters in Christ?

Baptism

Today I stood, clothes soaking wet, taking a look around at the sizeable crowd that had gathered for the occasion.

And I was grateful and full of joy.

Across the Causeway, at Northeast Point people were mingling, chatting, some hugging others who were similarly dampened by the cold water of the Atlantic.

No matter the time of year, it’s always cold. Only the temperature of the air changes. And today it was beautiful, sunny, and warm. Perfect for what we were doing.

We represented a handful of local churches joining together to celebrate as seven people entered their baptismal waters.

For my part, I had the privilege of baptizing a young woman from our church and my twin 12 year old sons. What a gift to be able to do so. It was an honour to baptize them.

Two other pastors led four more into the water to confess their faith in and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.

It was beautiful. It was brilliant. It was glorious, absolutely glorious.

You see, it’s on days like this I’m reminded what it means to be a pastor. Because as I watched all of the people there, from a bunch of different churches, talking, mingling, laughing, and, in the case of the kids, playing, I realized just how big and wondrous God and his kingdom and his story of grace are.

What God is up to is so much bigger than me.

But here’s the crazy thing. I get to participate in what he’s doing. So do you.

When I baptize someone, I get to play one small part in their story, in their walk with God. I may baptize someone, but they belong to Christ. And what Christ is doing in their life is not under my control but his.

I felt the same way as I watched all of these people, believers I know from different churches, talking together.

A friend of our sons, who is more or less the same age and had already been baptized, gave each of them a beautiful handwritten letter, congratulating them on their baptism. They have known her since they were five years old. She and her family used to attend our church, but even though they no longer do, they are still friends.

What God is up to is also bigger than any one church.

We can’t control what God does. How he chooses to work in someone else’s life, and in this or that church, is entirely up to him. He is sovereign and he is mighty and he is gracious.

And he is at work—in your life and in the lives of people around you, pursuing, extending grace, inviting each of us to trust in him and to rest in his presence and promises revealed in the good news of Jesus.

Today was a good day. Today I was a witness to how God has drawn people—young and old—to place their faith in him. I was a witness to the ongoing power of God’s grace in our world. Baptism tells the story of God’s grace. It’s a story I never tire of hearing.

COVID Fatigue and Giving Yourself Grace

In our province, we are in Phase 2 of a COVID re-opening plan. We can return to our church building this coming Sunday.

And I am very glad that we can do so.

But I am still a little tired. Sometimes more than a little.

And it’s not really a physical tiredness. It’s emotional and spiritual.

I don’t even know how to quite describe it. But I think it’s the accumulation of the last year and a half’s worth of news, COVID shutdowns and restrictions, loud voices on the far left and right decrying their political and cultural opponents, and all the pivots we’ve had to make.

Some of this weariness is my own fault. I have probably watched and listened to too much news and opinions regarding all of the cultural issues that have arisen in light of COVID. I perhaps didn’t take advantage of the upside of this last shutdown like I might have. After all, last year I read a bunch of books.

All I can say is that I don’t feel especially energized or excited about getting back to so-called normal. Who knows, maybe once it actually happens–to whatever degree it does–I will feel differently.

Maybe it’s also because we don’t really know if we’ll have to go into lockdown again or if there will be an upsurge of COVID cases in our province. It’s not really something anyone can reliably predict.

During this last shutdown my wife told me something maybe someone else out there needs to hear: give yourself grace.

Don’t be so unforgiving of yourself. You’re not perfect. No one expects you to handle these circumstances perfectly. And even if someone does expect that of you, you still won’t. You can’t. So phooey for them.

In other words, don’t be so hard on yourself. Give yourself a break. Take a time out. You don’t have to bear the weight of the world or solve every problem or understand every issue. You’re not the centre of the universe.

You see, we have to remember none of us has ever really been through anything like this before. This last year and a half (or so) was not something most of us would have anticipated. None of us were prepared for spending weeks restricted to our homes, unable to go about our normal lives as we knew them.

I mean, COVID also hit us during the US presidential campaign. So, yeah, that happened.

There were also protests, riots, looting, burning cities, the tearing down of statues of historical figures.

Not to mention how politicized COVID itself became, with people debating how to balance public health concerns with personal freedoms, whether or not masks were effective and necessary, and health and government officials at least appearing to give sometimes inconsistent and confusing messages about the guidelines and their efficacy.

And we all had a front row seat.

Add to this being unable to see family and friends, not being able to gather in our churches, having vacation plans curtailed, not being able to go out together as a family, having our kids doing school online from home, and is it any wonder our whole culture needs a vacation, a genuine rest, an opportunity simply to exhale, breath deep, and take a moment to reflect on who we are and what we need?

Yet some of us have had the expectation of ourselves that we should still somehow be able to do what we’ve always done as well as we’ve usually done it.

So if you’re in a place where things around you are beginning to re-open after having gone through a COVID lockdown, but you’re not as excited as you think you’re supposed to be: give yourself grace.

If you’re tired of all the news, and feel like you’re supposed to have a stronger position on some of the COVID related issues but you don’t: give yourself grace.

If you’re frustrated with neighbours, family, or friends because you don’t see eye to eye on masks, vaccinations, and what’s been been going on and they like to argue about it: give yourself grace.

Give yourself grace. (Yes, I’m talking to myself.)

And while you’re at it, give others a little grace too. After all, we’ve all been through this together.

Moreover, for those of us who are followers of Jesus, grace ought to be our calling card. As John 1:16 says, from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

And if God can extend his grace to us, surely we can learn to do the same.